Luke 21:5-8, 25-33
[This was the
annual "Hanging of the Greens" service at First Christian, when the
sanctuary is decorated for Christmas. Pictures included below]
This service has
enough complications in it that I think sometimes we need a Production
Manager :). But it is a lot of fun, and always special to have so
many children, visitors, and others with us on this very special day.
The text in the
lectionary for this first Sunday of Advent comes from the 21st chapter
of Luke's gospel, reading verses 5 through 8 and 25 through 33.
You're invited to follow along in your own Bible or the pew Bible:
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’
7 They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ 8And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.
‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
I'm going to guess
that this was probably not the text that you expected to hear this
morning. I mean, here we are, we've hardly digested our turkey and
cranberries, and already angles have harked their heralds in Wal Mart;
the first Noel has been given to certain poor shepherds at Macy's; three
kings bearing gifts have traversed Albertson's; donkey, cattle, and oxen
await a divine miracle in a manger we call. . . . .Autzen :).
One of these
miracles, Santa Claus came early, I found a T-shirt hanging in my closet
especially for that miracle about to occur that guarantees that I will
have the right shirt to wear, and I can celebrate victory.
So, naturally we come
to church this Sunday with the signs of Christmas already abundant all
around us wherever we go. And we expect to hear a scripture about
angels and stars in the East and other celestial wonders. Instead,
we are rather rudely awakened this morning with apocalyptic images of
shaking heavens, roaring seas, and a Son of Man descending in the
So what's going on
here? This is supposed to be a season of peace, love, and joy.
Why does the lectionary draw our attention to this rather cryptic
doomsday language of Jesus?
Well, first of all,
it's one of the ways to remind us that the seasons of the churches year
are not synonymous with those of the rest of the world. We march
by a different drummer. We are in the world, but not of the world.
Our calendar is not the world's calendar. It's not set by the
shopping season. Football season may be another story :) . . . .
And as we saw in the
text from last Sunday, the kingdom of Jesus is not from this world.
We are called to live by a different standard.
Second of all,
reading this text from the last chapter of Jesus' life on this first
Sunday of the churches year, is a way of beginning with the end in mind.
We do not enter into the advent season naively, without any knowledge of
the things that will take place and how this story ends. The
innocence and serenity of the little town of Bethlehem will soon give
way to the brutality of Rome on the hills outside Jerusalem.
Third, reading this
text reminds us that the season of advent really is not about the birth
of Jesus at all. It's about the coming of Christ into our world
amidst all of this chaos and confusion today. And rightfully
understood, the coming Christ is not about the end of the world, but
about the completion of creation.
so this season reminds us that so much more is at stake than what we put
under the tree, or our own individual lives. The Christmas story
is not merely the drama of a Jewish peasant born in a stable and
crucified as a King to save us. Nor is it even the story of a
nation's messiah come to save the people of God in a fallen world.
No, it is the grand drama of God's work to bring the realm of God to
fruition for the benefit of all creation.
As the Apostle Paul
says in his letter to the Romans: "For the creation waits with
eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation
was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the
one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free
from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of glory of the
children of God".
And so the proper
focus on this first Sunday of advent is not the birth of Jesus, because
that will come in due time (as all births will), so before we force Mary
into pre-mature labor, I invite us to stop and take a look at the signs
of the realm of God at hand. The tender chutes that tell us we are
in the season of advent.
In the text from
Luke, Jesus speaks of distress, fear, and foreboding. Hardly the
signs of the presence of God. But Jesus says it is in the face of
such tribulation that we are to have hope. To know that God is
nearer than we think.
In a time of global
upheaval that would destroy all hope, Jesus affirms not all is lost.
The Son of Man will appear in a cloud with power and glory. And
seeking to understand this rather cryptic image, a little historical
awareness sheds much light on the text.
Those who look to
this passage, and others like it, to find some evidence of a recently
fulfilled or soon-to-be fulfilled prediction about the imminent end of
the world totally miss the significance of verse 32 when Jesus says "Truly
I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things
have taken place".
Someone needs to tell
the preacher of the apocalypse, pastor Hagee in Texas and others like
him (Hagee the founder of Christians United for Israel) who is convinced
that the reestablishment of the nation of Israel is a sign that the end
of the world is coming. And of course if you know that story, you
know how it ends -- it doesn't end well for Israel. I tried to
tell the Director of that organization when he was in Eugene earlier
this year that it's really not a good thing to be standing with such a
group, affirming that kind of message in today's world. I hope
that gets back to pastor Hagee.
That Jesus may have
been referring to our generation, you see, is simply absurd. It
would mean that his words of comfort and hope had no meaning for the
people of his generation or every generation since, until ours.
The purpose of this
text was not to predict events far into the future, but to provide
comfort and hope in the face of trial and tribulation in the time in
which it was proclaimed. And indeed, there was that kind of
upheaval in the world at that time, in Palestine shortly before Luke
wrote his gospel that turned the Jewish world upside-down. It was
quite literally the end of the world for them. At least for the
Jewish nation -- bringing an end to the Temple and to Jerusalem as the
capital of the then defunct Israel.
That war, which ended
with the mass suicide of the last Jewish zealots in the fortress of
Masada towering over the Dead Sea, an event that is recalled in the
commissioning of Israeli military officers to this day (I learned when I
was at Masada last year) had global implications for the next 2,000
It was not only a
cataclysmic event for the Jewish world, but also for the Christian
community, with every Christian in Palestine caught up in the terror of
that war. And add to that the periodic persecutions of Christians,
begun under Nero around the same time, and the rise of martyrdom for
many Christian leaders, and you can see why they needed some hope.
Some assurance that they would survive this.
this is the context to which the words of Jesus are addressed, providing
courage and assurance for those who would greatly need that hope if they
were to survive the terror of Rome's oppressive brutality.
Jesus, we have to
admit, was wrong. For no savior in the clouds (or shining armor
for that matter) appeared to rescue them or otherwise end that terror
before those of that first generation passed.
Jesus was wrong about
the so-called 'second coming', unless Jesus was referring to an
altogether different manifestation, or once again an incarnation, of God
in our world.
So here's the
question, or the challenge I want to put to you this advent season:
could it be that when Jesus was talking about the Son of Man coming in
the clouds (an image taken out of the 7th chapter of Daniel from another
time of great upheaval) that He was not referring to himself per se, but
to the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the church? The followers
of Jesus, the body of Christ.
it be that he meant that it's in the community of his followers where we
will see the power and the glory of God at work in our world today?
That in the midst of
trial and tribulation of all kinds, we will find in the community of
God's people the support we need to keep going, to keep hope alive.
Is it possible that
this notion of the Son of Man coming from the heavens is another way of
saying that there is real help available to us from on high when we most
Did Jesus not say
that the kingdom of God is among us, with us, within us, is the place
where God dwells, lives, and rules? In the community of God's
This is our hope.
God is in our midst. God is not through with us yet. The
present reality, with all of its pain and imperfections is not the final
creation. There is still something better in this world to come.
So how can I be so
confident that such is the case? Other than the Ducks? :)
I know that God is in
our midst, because I have been with you in some of the most difficult,
painful times that anyone ever endures in their lives. I have seen
hope lost after a death, and then regained as God has been revealed to
you in the midst of that sorrow.
I've seen the fear of
a terminal diagnosis, and the peace of acceptance when life is lived a
day at a time, trusting in God.
know the realm of God is in our midst because I saw the food that was
gathered right here last Sunday and saw the people who received and
benefitted from your generosity in that outpouring, that abundance of
grace, precisely in this time of celebrating the abundance of the
harvest of God's goodness.
I know Christ is
present because I have seen your response to our participation in the
Egan Warming Center, as we work with others in our community to make
sure that no one again freezes on the streets of our community and dies
I know that Christ
continues to come into our world because I have seen the lives
transformed by your efforts to make Christ's love tangible in this
I've seen the hungry
fed. I've seen the homeless housed. I've seen addicts
redeemed, the naked clothed, hope rediscovered, love reborn, and dignity
restored because the light of God is alive and shines here in your work.
These are the signs
of hope I see. Signs that point to the nearness of God's realm.
Signs of God's justice and peace at work right here.
This is what advent
is all about. This is why we decorate. To celebrate the
coming of Christ in our world, to transform this place of worship as we
transform our world and our lives.
transforming power of Christ is available to us, and is in us.
That's the hope of
advent. To show the power and the glory of our coming Lord.
May it be.